Kwagiutl Ancestor Tattoo Totem, 2014
18” x 36” x 1.5”
From a Kwagiutl House Post from Quatsino Sound, BC. UBC MOA
Carved by Quatsino artist Siwis (George Nelson around 1906.
After completing the Noble Eagle painting, I wanted to try a different size of canvas and return to more exploration with colour. And with my comfort zone of the MOA UBC collection, the one totem that had always intrigued me, in being so different from the others, was the Kwagiutl House Post from Quatsino Sound BC. But as with the other indoor totems at the museum, it is very difficult to get a picture of the full impact of the colours. All my images had the usual dull cast from the artificial lighting and windows. I had cropped one of my images to feature the left side of the face, which would fit a 18”x36” canvas. But having seen the totem numerous times, I scoured the online pages to see if anyone had succeeded in getting a photograph catching the actual colours. I did find such a photograph but it was the right side of the face. But it gave me the reference I needed to apply to the image I had selected. It gave me the security of not having to second-guess what the totem ‘may’ look like.
Getting the design motifs right was essential. The tattoo forms were very specific. I went with a completely different approach for the base colour on this painting. I went with yellow and black bases. The yellow could keep the brightness and warmth of the cedar tones.
This was a challenging painting to do, with lots a new things to work out. The areas that took the most time were the eye and the mouth. I would gradually develop these but then leave them sit while I worked on other areas of the tattoos and the forehead. These would inform what was needed around the eye and the mouth. It was a back and forth process, taking each grouping forward a step at a time. Each would guide and assure that the overall painting was balanced.
I liked how the cedar on the forehead was coming along, but the shading around the eye and the mouth took more time. The yellow couldn’t be too electric, with its subtle aged tones of natural pigment, and I needed to bring out the carved surfaces. The fine carving around the mouth took a few attempts; adding more glazes and then bringing out the lines again, until the right shading and highlights worked.
The finishing details included the small bits of chipped and worn paint on the cheek and mouth.
Note: The chin was once covered with a piece of copper plate but has been lost over time. That is why the chin is so different from the rest of the face, and attributed to how water reacts with wood once it gets behind a metal plating.
Once completing this painting, I took the time to study how quickly the evolution of the series was going. This being the 9th of the series, the leaps forward from one painting to the next was significant. It was daunting as well, as it posed the question of whether I could keep that development going, or whether I had gone as far as I could. But with the unknowns around the corner, this journeyer decided that, having come this far in my discoveries, that I had to continue so long as I had totems cueing up in my mind and who’s images reached out to me.
A reading about this totem from www.donsmaps.com/pacificnorthwest.html :
Human Figure House Post with Slaves PDF
I have had some people say that the paintings from the Journeying With The Totems series would also fit well within corporate offices and boardrooms. I took a few moments to put together a few quick cut & paste visualizations to give you an idea. I have no connections to any the the spaces used from online photos, should any be recognizable.
There will be a delay for the next instalment of the journal entries on the individual paintings as my computer died on Monday. It needs a new motherboard which I can't afford and all my files are on that computer. I need to sort out the financing ASAP.
But fortunately, messages sent through the contact form and purchases from the For Sale page come through on my email on my iPhone.
Noble Eagle, 2014
24” x 36” x 1.5”
Part from a House Frontal Totem Pole which once stood before a dwelling named 'Plenty of Ilimen - Hides in this House.' It belonged to the clan named 'Those Born at Qadasgo Creek.' UBC MOA
Having done a few paintings now with more colour, I was drawn once again to the Eagle totem in the Indoor Collection at MOA UBC. I had always been taken by the decay in the wood and the loss of its beak which would have been a piece added into the totem (you can still see one slot where this piece was anchored inside the decayed area).
I felt more reassured that I could possibly do this totem justice now that I had developed my technique and had a better understanding of the subtleties in grays, wood tones coming through, and the orange rust colours of the decay.
The eyes, in addition to the very specific design and form, show how the one side of the totem (the left side in this case) has been more affected by the exposure to the elements. The lines have been distorted by it.
I used a mid gray tone as the base, and once the design was transferred onto the canvas, it took a few tries to get the mouth right, as it required visualizing the beak that was now missing, and understanding how the missing piece connected. I had a larger colour photocopy done of the area of the missing piece so that I could study what was going on there and understand the contours.
Once I had the initial overall colours done, I spent a lot of time on the decay and shadows. It took some moving forward and then taking steps back to gradually get the blend of colours just right. I gradually built up the brighter oranges and rust colours to those areas that caught more of the natural light (from the windows in the museum in this case). The decay was key for this piece. It so connected to a totem’s life span and how it remains beautiful and noble in it waning years. That is why I always had the title ‘Noble Eagle' in mind.
The totem section also catches some of the artificial light from above, especially on the forehead. Because of the cool quality of that lighting, I decided to add a bit more warmth to the wood tones coming through in order to keep the totem more natural.
One other note that I always find fascinating, is how a colour changes in relationship to those next to it. The case in point in this painting is the dark gray background colour. The colour, even though being the same, looked like two different colours (one on the left and another on the right). I ended up having to adjust the colour on the right to look more like the one on the left.
As I was working on this section, I was thinking of the shift that museums have brought about for the lifespan of the totem. It was problematic in that it became separated from its normal life span back to the earth it came from, and the notion of preservation, which was foreign. Wood cannot be preserved 100% in controlled environments and require interventions along the way to maintain it, but wood is wood. It’s lifespan has artificially been lengthened, but not permanently. But aside from these core concerns, including how many of these totems came to be in museums, a benefit for many of us, who are unable to get to the historical sites of the great totems, is that it has brought them to our centres and places of learning. I am also encouraged by how more and more museums are making efforts in keeping the First Nations people connected to their family treasures and artifacts and making them part of their documentation and preservation, and in cases, repatriating them back to the First Nations. I was taken by a documentary on the the lengthy efforts in repatriating the Haisla G’psgolox totem pole at the Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm. It was especially moving to witness the moment that the Elders had come, and approached their totem. The parallel stories, for me, presented a clear picture of what seemed to be the dichotomy of this story, where both appear to be opposites. But with ongoing openness to dialog, and much effort and commitment, it was successful. But you could see the resolve from the Elders to bring their totem home, and the museum which, although supporting the need to correct the wrong done when the totem was taken, had a very difficult time with the idea of releasing it without assurance of its ongoing preservation (a core mandate of a museum).
Another very good documentary covering totems being saved can be viewed through the following link. It is narrated by Bill Reid. ‘Totems - Rescuing the timeless totems of SGang Gwaay': Historic Haida totem poles are salvaged from a deserted island village in B.C. in 1957.Digital Archives http://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1659728755
So painting this series has never been simply an artistic activity. There are so many thoughts while painting and questions that come up. I have been fortunate to have access to the treasures of the MOA UBC and its extensive documentation, along with the wealth of information and videos online. My hope of hopes is that one day, my work and sincerity will speak for itself, and open the door for Prevost to continue his journey, learning and conversing with the First Nations artists.
More and more do I find that the title for the series was so appropriate, even before I came to understand its full meaning at the beginning. Initially, I saw it as a walking with the totems, and making discoveries as I moved along. But it has been more then that.
Yes, there was that time period when I was working full time on this series. It was a time for me and my inner thoughts, and with no conversations about the work with the public, other then with my son. It was with the exhibitions where I entered the next phase of verbalizing my thoughts in public. It was initially a nervous time as it is for many artists, where you are out of your studio's safety zone. But in a sense, I had an easier job of it because the totems were doing so much of the talking already. I just needed to present how this artist facilitated the conversation. The conversations with the public during exhibitions was so informative to my work, and I appreciate receiving your messages and inquiries. It is always crucial to externalize all that thinking and assessing of the work to date, and having that dialog with others about the work. It is essential to replenish in order to move forward. A journey cannot continue without restocking the materials required and reviewing your 'map'.
My son's recommendation that I prepare a journal entry for each painting was a wise one. He has been a great support along the way.
I've made a point of preparing one every 3 or 4 days. There was a point where I was thinking that it could become repetitive given that basic painting approaches remain the same somewhat. But I have been finding that as I go along, and look upon each paintings as I go, I reconnect and rediscover what the differences were and it gives me time to go deeper in what some of my thought processes were at the time, and flesh out more big picture ideas now that I've had a bit of time since a painting was completed. I am thankful that my son guided me to this because, as time goes by, the details get lost in ones memories. Every traveler needs to maintain a travel journal to remember the details of each day. It's the details that make the journey memorable, not the overview of where one had been on a given day. And my intent is clear in that I am not interested in the more artsy presentations about my art. It is what it is, and it comes out of my passion and core basic reactions.
Now, I am conscious of the fact that I will resist settling into that reminiscing for too long once the journal entries for each painting of the current series is done, as the journey is far from completed. I am not ready to set that brush done on the Journeying With The Totems series. But for now, it is a wonderful way to be with the series while I continue on that bumpy road of getting myself resettled on Vancouver Island, where my son and I can be in a better home situation, and where each of us can have better studios to work in; he with his music and me with my art.
But once I complete the entries for the current series, other then keeping some notes, I will wait to do similar entries for future pieces. They too will need time to settle within me, and I want to keep the active painting from getting 'heady'. My focus is to both resist the need to produce for production's sake and to become too artsy about my work. These would get in the way of allowing me to react to the totems and selected images of them. I need to leave myself open and let them guide, let them do the talking.
Mosquito Totem, 2014
18” x 36” x 1.5”
From the ‘Running Wolf Totem Pole’, which tells the origin of the first Gitksan people on the Skeena River. The pole raising was on August 24, 1980 at the Museum of Anthropology, with a large contingent of Gitsan attending. UBC MOA
Carved by Walter Harris, a ‘Ksan carver, and family, Richard, Doreen and Rodney.
A mosquito totem? Let’s face it. Being a prairie boy, I was intrigued by the fact that there was such a thing. In Manitoba, the mosquito is a fact of life that most wished would just disappear. And here, it is depicted in totems on the West Coast.
Kwagiulth legend tells about "The Cannibal at the North end of the World" who was enticing all the humans with a rainbow colored smoke. He would then capture them. A clever Chief dug a huge pit fathoms of fathoms deep and tricked "The Cannibal at the North end of the World" who fell into the pit turning to rainbow colored ash. The Chief cast a spell on him saying; "You will no longer harm my people as 'The Cannibal at the North end of the World' but you shall be a Mosquito". http://www.northwesttribalart.com/
The picture that I had taken of this section was again from the MOA UBC outdoor totem of ‘Running Wolf Totem Pole’. It is the top section just under the carving of the running wolf. The totem has aged further since this photograph was taken. I loved how, at this phase, the gray patina was established, but the deeper layers still showed the warm cedar colours. I also liked how the reflection of the lighter cedar reflected light onto the mouth of the mosquito. I appreciated that this mosquito had teeth, something that I could relate to having swatted countless numbers of them through the years. Aside from its beauty on the pole, I guess my decision to attempt a painting of this mosquito was primarily because it struck my funny bone inside of me and, as an artist, I was taken by its west Coast portrayal; seeing something that I’ve loathed all my life and yet taken by its beauty on this totem. I also loved the eye. Pardon me, but it so reminded me of the squirrel in Ice Age (back to the funny bone in me). Yes I know, it isn’t an anthropological choice based on historical background, but like with the other paintings, I allowed myself to react honestly to the totem, and how it spoke with me. All I can do is try to convey that to anyone who views the painting.
After what has become my standard beginning phase for my paintings, instead of gray, I used a mid cedar colour as the base for this painting. It is the colour that comes through the gray patinas.
I took my time in developing the distinct patterns.
Before adding any gray, I wanted to further develop the darker cedar tones that came through the eye, cheek and mouth. After that, the shadows were key.
The gray patinas in this painting needed to be subtle, being in its earlier stages. If it got too dark, I would lighten it again and again. It was a delicate process of stepping forward and backwards, until the right balance was achieved. A case in point was the beak; getting the right balance between the remaining lighter cedar colours and the patina developing along the rim and edges.
The surprise discovery for me in this painting was the glow of the teeth. This is where constant observation of the original image informs your decisions. It wasn’t a conscious decision on my part to create a reflection or glow effect. I was focused on that I saw in the picture. But when I had completed the mouth and took a step back, I was moved by what I had somehow managed to achieve. I loved the look of it. Where that come from, from within me! Those are very special moments for an artist. It isn’t a case of patting yourself on the back or gloating about how good you are. For most artists, the opposite is true. We so judge our work as it develops and very often after it is completed. There is the tendency to keep working and reworking, and not reaching a point where you can say ‘It’s perfect’. With time, an artist learns to follow his/her instincts and just know when it is time to set the brush down. I suppose that also comes from my work in iconography. There is a tradition where an icon is completed, the iconographer will often paint a white line along the outside of the red halo to signify that, even though completed, perfection has not been achieved, and the white nods to the white gessoed surface of the next icon. It is all an ongoing journey. It is the same with this series on the totems.
A bit of a set back the last few days, with being in ER with a kidney stone. The last time I had this happen was 16 years ago. Anyone who is familiar with this know how bad the pain gets. My son brought me in to ER at 3am after suffering through 6 hours with no relief in sight. After being on IV with pain and anti inflammatory drugs I was fortunate to eventually pass the 5mm stone. Enough for those details.
And yesterday, I received the news that the offer on my condo fell through! I now have another viewing this afternoon with a second offer being presented.
So things have become more complex and finances are very tight, in trying to cover 3 payments due in 3 days and groceries will likely not be possible. A typical scenario for an artist trying to support his family.
I really need to get a few painting sales pronto to cover the home front and see us through our transition to a better home and studio on Vancouver Island. A sale doesn't need to happen solely through the For Sale page here, but you can also send you info through the Contact Form and it could be taken care of through PayPal or through eTransfer should you prefer.
Grizzly Bear Father, 2014
24” x 36” x 1.5”
From the Mortuary Totem Pole With Grizzly Bear Crest, UBC MOA,
Carved by Bill Reid & Doug Cranmer
By this time, I began documenting bits of history and acknowledgements to the master carvers, for future use in potentials exhibitions, printing and postings on my website. It was deeply connected to the need of continually nodding to the Masters and the actual totems. I am not creating anything new in that sense, but honouring these treasures of the West Coast. At this very early point in the journey, I only had a vague idea of the promotion requirements that would come later. But keeping notes would be useful in the future.
After completing the Frog Totem, I wanted to do another painting of the same size. I liked the 24”x36” size as it allowed me more options in selecting more from of an image, unlike the 24”x24” format, and give the totem more of a presence.
It was time to go back to my library of images from the MOA UBC outdoor collection. The indoor collection is problematic in that the totems are artificially lit and the great wall of windows to the north gives a cool blue cast to the totems, and the richness of the muted colours are lost. And a camera (mine anyway) just isn’t able to catch those subtle colours, and picks up the blue cast. So for now, while I would try to do make another visit to the museum, the outdoor collection was my best option. But with the outdoor collection facing northeast, the shade takes over pretty fast, but I had a picture of the Grizzly Bear Father on the Mortuary Totem that had sunlight catching the left eye and cheek. I was taken by how the whites played with the light. The shade also did interesting things with the aged red pigments.
Once having done the usual graphing of the design, the nose and the eyes were challenging in getting the lines just right; with the shape of the totem and the specific shape of the eyes and nostrils.
The wood tones were straightforward enough. The new discoveries for this painting were the muted tones of the aging mouth and getting the whites just right. The mouth and nostrils was the observation of how the sunlight reflected on them from nearby surfaces. And the reds weren’t red at all, but very muted versions of orangey and brown reds and grays. The other key point of observation was studying how the sunlight worked on the surfaces around the eye and cheek. Again the whites aren’t white but varying degrees of light blues and grays. But against the wood tones etc., they look white. That is one colour technique that I’ve carried over from my experience with the icons. Rarely are colours white, but light shades of green, blue, beige etc. A pure white would be too jarring and unnatural.
Having completed the Grizzly Bear Father painting, I was struck by the strength of the eye and the highlights surrounding it, as well as the nostrils and mouth that reflected the light. It is one of those moments where, as the artist, I ask myself ‘Where did that come from! I’ve never done something like this before.’ And then there is the question ‘Will I be able to repeat this again?’
Link to the original totem at MOA UBC:
Frog Totem, 2014
24” x 36” x 1.5”
From the ‘Running Wolf Totem Pole’, which tells the origin of the
first Gitxsan people on the Skeena River:. The pole raising was on
August 24, 1980 at the Museum of Anthropology, with a large
contingent of Gitxsan attending. UBC MOA
Carved by Walter Harris, a ‘Ksan carver, and family, Richard, Doreen and Rodney.
After completing the Grizzly #2 painting, I knew hat it was time to take a leap forward and try something different. I was unsure as to whether what I had leaned and developed so far would be enough to support me in this new venture into he unknown. But I would continue to trust the process and thrust that the totem would guide me.
I had decided that I wanted to try a larger canvas and purchased a 24”x36” canvas. I began spending time with my library of images with the canvas size in mind. I experimented by cropping images to the ratio of the canvas to find the best composition. My default for potential studies was the collection at the MOA UBC, as I am very familiar with it and there are a number of totems that I am particularly fond of (with their combination if beauty and aging).
In a recent visit, the sun was in a perfect placement on the Running Wolf Totem Pole, which brought out all the amazing undertones of the cedar under the aged patina and cracking. I was able to get great photographs of the 3 sections: The Frog, Killer Whale and Mosquito. It is always challenging trying to get images that are not distorted by keystoning from pointing the camera upwards.
I was especially taken by the beauty of the rich brown and gray tones on the Frog, on the north side of its face. The south side of the face is deeply crevassed and has lost much of its original wood colours because of the constant exposure to the sun.
So once I had chosen the base colour, I was now in very new territory. There was so much colour, and so many layers of colour. Where did I begin?
I’ve found that it is best to begin with the shadows; strongest first and then build in thin shading to define the shape of the face. It informs the eye as to what the wood is doing and how the light will play on it, as to the wood’s natural graining and cracking.
I then started working in the darker rich reddy brown tones as they come through everything else on the face. And gradually, I would lighten them as I followed the contours. But before developing the more yellowy highlights, I had to take on the challenge of the predominant nose. My, there was a lot going on there. A few attempts didn’t work, and thankfully, with acrylic begin so forgiving, it was easy enough to make the decision to repaint the base colours in that area and start over. There are so many varying shades of gray but still keeping some of the warm brown coming through. Once I had seen my way to achieving the goal, it made the other graying area so much easier to tackle.
The shaping of the mouth (and the frog within) was also a new experiment and was another exciting discovery. It supported the next challenge of the forehead. There was the classic smooth cedar wood with all its patinas under the sunlight. If I went too far with a colour, it was easy enough to work backwards with very thin layers of colours, and add the slight hints of colours depending how the wood played with the sun and the more shaded sections.
On this painting, I delved further in developing the cracks. A crack is the result of the highlights and shadow, not just a line. And their colours also change depending where they are on the totem. The same goes for the line patterns carved into the wood. And it is vital that these be accurate as they change the image if not. They have a precise shape according to the particular master carvers and the heritage and culture of each totem.
Then lastly, it was time to develop the hot spots on the face, as to where the light was it’s brightest. This too required many shades to keep the natural look of the wood and it carving.
Note: This was one painting where a great many people were convinced that it was actual wood. I saw some setting their head against the exhibition wall next to it to see that it was indeed a canvas painting. The common expression heard was “I just want to touch the wood.”
Northern Exposure Southern Exposure
Link to MOA/UBC webpage for This Totem Pole:
While I've been working and exhibiting the Journeying With The totems series, I've received questions such as 'How are you connected with First Nations', 'Do you have permission from First Nations', 'Are you working with First Nation artists on this project', etc. The hcoreof these inquiries, usually from non-Indigenous persons being politically correct, comes down to, 'why and what right do you have to paint this series'.
I don't have any difficulty with these questions as I was prepared for them when I began my journey with this series and especially before the exhibitions. My journey began with a long hard look as to 'why'. I needed to find a foundation that gave me permission within my own integrity and my deep respect for the First Nations Cultures and the works of the Masters. I am very clear as to who I am and am not. I am also very clear in that my focus and the nature of my work is iconographic yes, but I am deeply committed in presenting what I see, what anyone sees when looking closely at the treasures of the West Coast. It is not my heritage to interpret the totems. The extent of my 'artistic' choices is selecting the focus of a particular section of a totem, like a facet of a gem stone. The facet isn't the whole of a gem's beauty, but is is a distinct part which is beautiful onto itself. And after experiencing that close-up, being able to then step back and see the full totems in a new appreciation; the colours, the process, the aging, the mastery of the carvers, and hopefully a deeper eagerness to learn more about them. And key to me - Be open and 'Let the totem talk to you'.
But this journal entry is about how new phases in ones life do not come out of the blue. In this particular case, the question of why I am working on a totem series, is simple. I have had First Nations & Métis friends and contacts throughout my life, have supported First Nations artists and designers within the various theatre and Arts Admin roles that I've played, and then there are the simple things that surround me every day.
These have been my cherished keepsakes from the early 1980s when I lived and worked in North Vancouver in one of my previous lives here. These were from talented young men selling their creations, and I hope that they can one day come to know that their creations remain honored and with me at all times.
And they are part of that presence within me that always draws me to the totems and all the awe inspiring mask carvings. A distinction that I made when starting on the painting series was that, even though the masks are so beautiful, these were not meant for the public's consumption. They are private to each First Nation, and I therefore won't paint them out of respect.
And that same deep respect also guides me in always crediting the Masters and background on the totems within the printed materials used in exhibitions and on my website.
Links to the First Nations Carvers featured: